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Scot Topic: Should Scottish Rugby Use Project Players?

Yesterday’s Scotland team announcement for their final Autumn Nations Cup game against Ireland featured a new cap that has raised a few eyebrows in Scottish circles – that of South African born and raised Fly Half Jaco van der Walt. 

His maiden start comes after qualifying on residency grounds and is hot on the heels of fellow Edinburgh teammate Duhan van der Merwe and Glasgow Warriors Prop Oli Kebble. All 3 hail from South Africa and all 3 will be representing their  adopted nation in the matchday 23.

Jaco van der Walt replaces Duncan Weir at 10

All of which, once again, throws the question of the so-called ‘Project Players’ into the spotlight. The term means different things to different people and covers all manner of circumstances but, in terms of Scotland, it is generally considered to be a foreign born and raised player who is brought to Edinburgh or Glasgow with the express intention of him becoming qualified, and eventually playing, for the national side.

There are few more polarising policies. For some it’s a pragmatic fact of life – playing within the rules as they are written by World Rugby. For others it goes against the very spirit of international sport and representing your nation. But which is right?

In this, the first edition of Scot Topic, we’ll look at the cases both for and against Project Players.

In the Pro camp we have James Maclean who was born in England and played through the London Scottish system.

Against we have Archie Craigie Halkett, a Scottish born-and-bred youth rugby player.

Both are fanatical Scotland supporters, but both hold opposing views on the role of project players for Scottish rugby.

So have a read and let us know what you think in the comments below.

We’ll start with James Maclean making the case for Project Players

When considering a loaded subject like project players, it’s important to examine the practical and political/emotional aspects separately.

First off, and perhaps easiest to address, we have the practical benefits.

In both population and playing number, we’re a small country on the world stage. Scotland has approximately 36,000 registered rugby players, of which just 11,000 are senior males and a little over 100 are professionals.  

When you compare that to our nearest neighbours like England (382,154 registered players), France (542,242) Ireland (101,922), Wales (83,120) and even Italy (87,211), it’s clear that we’re at a massive disadvantage. If you count the RFU Championship and French D2, England have over 24 professional (or at least semi professional) clubs and France 30, with Ireland and Wales on 4 apiece. By comparison, we have just 2 – supplemented by some part time players in the new Super6.

Thankfully, more often than not, we punch above our relative weight and have done so for well over a century. 

How do we do it? Is it down to sheer force of will and an ingrained underdog mentality? Maybe in part, but since the 1990’s (and even before) we’ve also had access to a foreign-born workforce to supplement our native players. 

Whilst not technically project players, David Sole and Sean Lineen were both born abroad

Many a kilted Kiwi has been brought in with little more than a distant grandparent tying them to our country. When you look at every big Scottish win from the 1990 Grand Slam, right through to the recent triumphs over England, Australia and France, there are foreign born players at the core of every team. It’s impossible to tell if we’d have won without them, but it seems unlikely.

More recently we’ve had the likes of WP Nel, Tim Visser, Sean Maitland, Dan Parks and Josh Strauss adding to our side. All of those, bar Parks and Maitland, would be deemed Project Players. Would Scotland have come within a whisker of a Rugby World Cup Semi-Final without the attacking endeavour of Visser and the brute force of Strauss and Nel? I doubt it.

WP Nel was the fulcrum of Scotland’s scrum

The point is that we simply cannot survive at the top of the game with only the players who come through the Scottish system. And we remain at the top table, in part, because we’ve thus far taken full advantage of foreign born talent.

The Scottish coaches and managers know this. They have a singular job…to win. If they fail in that function they are fired. So asking them to play by different rules to the rest of the world, and turn away top talent would be tantamount to career suicide. 

And we, the rugby playing public, love success. We quickly forget the foreign accents and the penchant for biltong when Murrayfield is jumping. On the flip side, remember the dark days of the Noughties when the side struggled and we couldn’t fill a stadium for love nor money?

Now there are arguments to be made that we could use our resources more efficiently, could spread the game from outside the borders and public schooling system. All of these are valid, but all will take generations to realise the benefits. 

We should definitely make it top priority to address those issues and that of a 3rd/4th Pro team. But what of the interim? Are we willing to collectively accept decades of defeats for the long term good of the game? All with no guarantee of more success at the end?

It’s easy to forget what some success has done for the game

Will we continue to pack out Murrayfield and fill the coffers if we’re forced to watch 2nd tier teams beat our boys?

So in practical terms, it’s a no brainer. When we have such scant resources, we’d be mad not to look at importing them. If you run a business, would you refuse to import the best and brightest? If you wanted success, of course you wouldn’t.

But perhaps it’s about more than pragmatism and a win-at-all costs approach, I hear you say.

Well let’s look at the political and emotional aspects of project players.

Rugby and politics rarely mix (unless you’ve got a natty blazer and penchant for prawn sandwiches), but the issue of nationality is innately political.

Criticism of qualified players is often predicated on the assumption that the players can never ‘really’ be Scottish. This can verge dangerously towards nationalism and xenophobia. But you can understand the logic, little is more tribal and nationalistic than representing an entire country. But how do we define what it means to be Scottish?

Watson was born in Manchester

Some would say you have to be born and bred. Well that would have ruled out a massive number of recent players like John Barclay (Hong Kong), Tommy Seymour (USA), Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Ali Price, Duncan Taylor (all England). Not to mention greats like David Sole, Tom Smith, Ian McGeechan, Scott Murray (all England), John Beattie (Borneo) or Damian Cronin (Germany).

What if you were born abroad to Scottish parents servicing in the forces? Are you somehow less Scottish than a lad from Leith?

Then there’s the aforementioned “Scottish blood” concept, which at first seems more balanced, but on closer inspection borders on an antiquated view of succession at the best, or about racial purity at the worst.

There have been countless immigrants to Scotland who have given their talents, money and even lives to this country. Surely they qualify as Scots? Go back far enough and all of our families hail from elsewhere – be it Celt, Viking, Norman or something else entirely. The point is, where do you draw the line?

Sport is about one side versus another, which invariably makes us view everything in binary terms, Edinburgh v Glasgow, Scotland v England, Russell v Farrell. But when it comes to something as complicated and nuanced as belonging, surely we need to take a more balanced view.

In an increasingly global world it becomes more and more difficult to define nationality along traditional lines. More people than ever before are born to parents from different nations, with many living and working in multiple countries. They cannot be simply and easily classified. If your great grandparents were all born in different countries, you could conceivably have 8 different national identities. Good luck having a clear cut sense of belonging to one of them.

Modern Scottish identity is about more than birth or blood

Glasgwegian comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli speaks proudly of his Indian heritage and his Scottish nationality, but he was born in London. Must he forsake one to love the other?

I myself am Scottish, Polish, English and more besides. My Grandparents lived in what was then Rhodesia and I have lived in a half-a-dozen countries since being a teenager. I am proud of all my constituent parts, but when it comes to identity and sport, I choose to align with my kilted Grandfather. With the Scottish results over my lifetime, I certainly don’t think you could accuse me of being a glory supporter – more likely a masochist.

Which brings us back to project players. Why do players come to Scotland with a view of playing for the national team? That’s hard to say and varies from player to player. Some come to improve their lives and those of their families. Others come for a different experience or to try a new life. And yes, others still come for the chance to simply play international rugby.

So how long do you have to be in the country before you’re considered a Scot? Most players have a senior rugby playing shelf life of around 10 years. So the new residency period of 5 years already makes it difficult to qualify for another country and pick up many caps.

If it was increased then you might as well just ban it altogether. Which would leave foreign born players in the ridiculous situation where they’re potentially living in Edinburgh or Glasgow, married to a Scot and carrying a British passport but are unable to play for their new country.

It’s easy to call them mercenaries, but I’d wager most of us know someone who’s gone abroad to work – be it to London or further afield. They go to further themselves and to experience all that the world has to offer. Many end up staying and making a life there.

And this is the crux of it, whilst we bathe ourselves in an old romanticised vision of Scottish identity at every game, for the players it is a job. They get paid to play for Scotland.

For better or worse, the moment the game went professional the old amateur values of representing your country, for nothing but the sheer joy of it, were destined to disappear. Do all 23 players feel pride at being picked to play for Scotland? Damn right. But much of that pride comes from the fact that they’re performers being picked to play on the biggest stage.

Which brings us to the oft cited issue of selection and Project Players blocking Scottish born players, leading to them dropping out of the sport. But this goes against everything we know about competition. Whilst one young player may feel passed over for a high quality import, another may be challenged by it. 

Competition for places is heralded by coaches as the gold standard. It’s supposed to make players better, tougher and more resilient. You have to question the devotion of an adult player who quits the game they love just because they aren’t getting picked. Is someone like that going to thrive against superior opposition? Or will they quit on the field as well?

If they can’t beat an import, then perhaps they weren’t good enough to start with. If they’re not even willing to even try, then they definitely weren’t.

Scottish born players still make up the bulk of the team

So, whilst I understand the concerns around Project Players, I think they’re both a natural byproduct of an increasingly mobile world and a necessary measure to combat labour market shortages. And it’s not as if Scottish born and bred players aren’t getting picked. Look at the likes of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Zander Fagerson, Jonny Gray, Magnus Bradbury, Darcy Graham and Jamie Ritchie. They’re the spine of Townsend’s team and future plans. So I think it’s possible to strike a balance between imports and homegrown.

Rugby is often compared to war, and in a sense it is. Instead of fighting our neighbours on the field of battle, we battle them on a rugby field. But just as these foreign born players now turn out for Scotland, so have many foreign forces and individuals fought with and for Scotland in the wars of yesteryear. So just as we thanked them for joining the fold, so should we thank the players who give their bodies and skills to our cause. 

If bleeding for our nation doesn’t qualify them as Scots, nothing will.

Next up we have Archie Craigie Halkett making the case against Project Players

For as long as many of us can remember, the rugby nations of the world have been using ‘Project Players’. These are players who moved from their own country to represent a different nation (with little or no connection to their adopted home), after completing just 3-5 years of residency.

For just as long, people have been debating whether that’s right, fair or good for the game. As a youth player in Scotland, I feel very passionately that it is bad for the game and bad for people like me who hold dreams and ambitions of representing this country.

Kiwi born Michael Leitch meets South African Born WP Nel

But what do the numbers say? At the most recent Rugby World Cup, the amount of players representing a different country from their birth peaked at well over a hundred. Scotland, like many other nations, had foreign born players in their 31, but what separated Scotland from the competition was that they had the most foreign born players – a massive 14 out of their 31 man squad. That’s almost half. Let that sink in for a moment.

Now it’s clear why Scotland and so many other countries use ‘Project Players’. It’s because they increase the national team’s depth and quality. Players such as Sam Johnson, Tim Visser and WP Nel have all represented Scotland after qualifying through residency.

Tim Visser scored 14 tries for his adopted country during his international career. Sam Johnson’s brilliant try against England last year made sure that the Calcutta Cup remained north of the border for another year. Without these players we may have never got to a stage where we could beat anyone on our day. ‘Project Players’ have clearly helped Scotland over the last few years.

CJ Stander has represented both Ireland and The British & Irish Lions

As I have already alluded, Scotland is not the only country which liberally uses ‘Project Players’. Ireland’s Bundee Aki and CJ Stander both qualified for their nation through World Rugby’s Residency Rules. Both are great players, with Stander good enough to be selected for the British and Irish Lions in 2017. Ireland, like many other nations, have gained huge advantages from their foreign born players so why shouldn’t Scotland?

Simply put, we don’t have the opportunities. The argument about only having 2 teams cuts both ways. Advocates of ‘Project Players’ claim that it makes it essential to draft in foreign talent, but I would say it indicated the exact opposite. If there are only 70-80 or so Pro spots at Edinburgh or Glasgow, then every one of them should be used to help develop Scottish talent. Every foreign born player is therefore blocking a young Scottish talent and handicapping our efforts to build a strong national team.

Which leads me to one of the principal reasons Scotland should refrain from using ‘Project Players’: because it discourages young people from playing rugby. When you’re young you dream of representing your country. But if you see Scotland selecting players who qualified through residency then that dream seems all the more impossible. Many people might give up on their dream as a result, which surely is the opposite of what we should be seeking.

Who will the young stars of the future look up to?

Shouldn’t the SRU be trying promote rugby in Scotland rather than stealing players from other countries? ‘Project Players’ may help us gain short term success, but getting rid of these players would help us gain long term success. Without ‘Projects Players’ more people would play rugby after they have left school which would only benefit the game – from grassroots to the national team

The other major reason why we should not use ‘Project Players’ is pride. We’re talking about the national team, after all. I strongly believe that most Scottish rugby fans would rather see young home grown players from our country than someone who qualified through residency. Duhan Van Der Merwe has now collected 3 caps for Scotland, but do we really want someone who barely knows the anthem in the national team?

What is the cost of success?

Don’t get me wrong, he has been brilliant for Edinburgh and is looking to be a great addition to the Scotland team. But, to me at least, it has never really felt like he is too interested in representing Scotland, but is really just interested in playing International Rugby. There is nothing wrong with this really, we are all allowed different motivations in life. But that doesn’t mean we have to enable it, especially when it comes at a cost to the Scottish talent that has come through the system.

Yes, playing International Rugby is no doubt amazing, but isn’t representing your country supposed to be an honour bestowed on the best of the nation? Some people are absolutely fine with van Der Merwe or van der Walt playing for Scotland, but not everyone is. You would never get these sort of feelings for a player who was born, raised and played all his rugby in Scotland. It is devisive and that distracts from what should matter.

But what of the cases where a player has spent a great number of years here and feels Scottish? I advocate following the idea suggested by Rory Boyd in which you pledge your allegiance at 18. You can choose a country where you were born in, currently live in (when you turn 18) and a country your parents or grandparents where born in. This rule would end ‘Project Players’ for good and allow players to play for the country they feel passionate about.

Our reliance on South African talent has made us a meme Credit: BokMemes

Project Players also taint every great victory we achieve. With every sneering mention of ‘Kilted Kiwis’ and ‘ScotBoks’ you get the sense that other nations see us as a charity case – unable to win without employing foreign talent. Yet who’s to say we wouldn’t have won those games anyway? And even if we didn’t, at least we could say we put out OUR best.

So in conclusion I believe we should not continue to use ‘Project Players’. It’s not clear what the project actually is. These players may help us gain short term success, but in the long run it decreases player numbers and morale. It also damages the the integrity of International Rugby.

I would love to see us join Argentina and help lead the way in only selecting national players who were born here. If we did that, then win lose or draw, we’d be able to hold our heads high and know we did what was best for the game.

So what do you think? Let us know in the comments below  ⬇️

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